January 27, 2017

UFC on FOX 23: Sterling and Assunção Seek Restored Momentum For Bantamweight Gold Rush

By Raphael Garcia

UFC on Fox 23 is an intriguing card with matchups that should be on everyone’s radar. But while the focus centers on the main event, which pits Valentina Shevchenko against Julianna Peña, there’s another interesting bout which takes place earlier in the evening. Raphael Assunção and Aljamain Sterling are due to battle in a bantamweight fight that will help set the tone for the division in 2017. This is an important rebound battle for both men, who are coming off of key losses in recent bouts.

Both Sterling and Assunção are in need of a win in order to remain relevant within the 135-pound division. Even though the UFC uses a ranking system, everyone is well aware that those rankings do not mean a lot when developing title challengers. Assunção was in the best position, as he had a win over former champion TJ Dillashaw, but Dillashaw got that win back at UFC 200. Sterling was making a run before he took his first professional loss at UFC Fight Night 88 when he dropped a split decision to Bryan Caraway. Momentum for both men has been halted, but one of them has a chance to right the ship on Saturday.

With Cody Garbrandt as the new champion, that creates a lot of potential paths for the bantamweight division’s future. Whenever a new champion takes the belt, he or she is immediately thrust into conversations which break down how that champion would perform against the top contenders in the weight class. Dillashaw did Sterling and Assunção a favor when he soundly defeated John Lineker at UFC 207, as he derailed one of the hottest bantamweights in the division. So now, despite not being the top two names on the contenders list, these fighters can change that thought process if they put on a show when they meet this weekend in Denver, Colorado.

Although both fighters have a lot to gain with a win, Sterling’s past performance lends itself to the idea that he could be pushed faster with a big win. Assunção has been under the Zuffa banner since 2009 and hasn’t been known as an “exciting” fighter. Sterling’s thought of in the exact opposite way; some were comparing him to Jon Jones when they observed his capabilities in the Octagon. Sterling is growing into a character within the sport that’s shown a willingness to talk and promote fights, exactly the type of competitor that the UFC enjoys building its promotion around. MMA Oddsbreaker has this fight listed as a very close contest, with Sterling a +120 underdog to Assunção’s -140 favorite, but if the New Yorker can dominate Assuncao this weekend, expect him to be included in the top contenders’ conversation.

The impending fight between Raphael Assunção and Aljamain Sterling should not be overlooked by mixed martial arts fans. This is a compelling contest that has profound implications for the entire division, and it is a fun style matchup. There was a time when the bantamweight division wasn’t the deepest weight class in the sport, but that time has passed. The presence of fighters like Sterling and Assunção prove that point, and this weekend’s bout between the two is a can’t miss affair that will give both fighters the opportunity to put an exclamation mark on it.

UFC on FOX 23: Shevchenko vs. Peña takes place January 28, 2017 at Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.

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